by Linda Borg
The Providence Journal
March 07, 2005
Starting Saturday, the new SAT - with its fresh emphasis on writing, grammar and higher-level math - has some parents, students and guidance counselors pressing the panic button.
Barrett, who attends the all-girls Lincoln School in Providence, is one of thousands of high-school juniors who will have to write a short, persuasive essay, tackle Algebra II and know something about statistics, probability and data analysis.
"It's unfair because not everyone can take tests," she said. "It doesn't show their talents."
When the new SAT debuts, students who spend months crafting the pitch-perfect essay to get into college will be expected to write a coherent one in 25 minutes.
Adding to the angst, the new SAT will now have three components: verbal, math and writing, each worth a possible 800 points. A perfect score will jump from 1,600 to 2,400. And the new SAT will be much more weighted toward English, worth a possible 1,600 points.
The College Board, which administers the SAT, says it revamped the test to better reflect what's going on in the classroom. But even board president Gaston Caperton has said that the driving force behind the new test was that its biggest customer, the University of California, had threatened to drop the exam as part of its admissions criteria.
"The winners are the coaching companies who have seen a tremendous increase in enrollment," said Bob Schaeffer, the director of FairTest, a group critical of high-stakes testing. "The losers are the kids and parents for whom testing hysteria has become even greater."
The new SAT has drawn fire from every quarter.
Some say the College Board has dumbed down the test by removing the word analogies, which measured aptitude rather than content knowledge.
Others say it will only widen the already palpable achievement gaps between privileged students and minority ones. Still others say that the new SAT makes it easier for test-prep companies such as the Princeton Review and Kaplan Inc. to coach students for the test.
"My concern is that the test is more teachable, causing a larger gap between those kids who can afford it and those who can't," said Annie Burnquist, founder of Georgetown Learning Centers in Virginia. "It puts a lot of obstacles in the path of middle-class families."
The typical Kaplan SAT prep course costs $899, and individual instruction can run as high as $1,200.
Burnquist says the new test doesn't reflect what many high-school students are learning in class. From an early age, students learn to write through a process of peer review, revision and more revision. Teachers, even in college, rarely grade a paper based on a first draft.
Meanwhile, most public high schools have moved away from teaching grammar and syntax, adopting a more holistic approach to writing that stresses clarity of thought and personal expression.
"It's a flawed test," said Paul Tukey, director of guidance at the private Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, R.I. "In my 35 years of teaching, I have never asked a student to come into class and write an essay on a topic they know nothing about. This is not going to tell us anything useful."
But College Board spokeswoman Caren Scoropanos said the SAT's on-demand essay is very similar to the kind of blue-book test routinely given in college.
The College Board, she said, understands that this is a first draft. A student can get a top score on an essay even if he or she makes some mistakes in grammar and punctuation. The scorers will be looking at the student's ability to organize and express thoughts clearly.
Tukey, who also runs a private SAT prep course, thinks the College Board intentionally dumbed down the SAT to make it easier for certain populations of students.
The dreaded analogies section, he said, was valuable because it measures the sort of nimble thinking that has nothing to do with memorization.